As the warmer weather settles in, I love to see summer squashes as they ripen early in the garden and appear on the stands at my local markets. Seeing all the diverse shapes and vibrant colors—and in the kitchen, coaxing them to their succulent best—is as sweet a pleasure as long days and balmy nights.
Zucchini, the fast-growing summer squash we all know best, is just one of many summer squash varieties. Cooked to tender perfection, all are nutty-sweet and delicious, whether steamed, sautéed, poached, baked, or grilled.
look for firm squash with no blemishes
All summer squash tastes best when it’s picked young; if squash is allowed to grow too big, it gets watery, tough, and tasteless. Look for squash that’s brightly colored, firm, and plump, with a filled-out look and no blemishes. The skin should have a smooth, glossy sheen. Stay away from bruised, dull-looking or flaccid squash—it will be bland and watery.
Zucchini-type squash is best when it’s no more than six inches long, and pattypan or round squash should be between two and four inches in diameter. If you choose tiny “baby” squash, again, make sure they’re brightly colored, plump, and tender.
If you see summer squash with fresh-looking blossoms still attached, buy them. This is a sure sign that the squash was picked and handled carefully on the way to the market.
You’ll find some yellow crookneck squash that have a slightly bumpy look to their skin. It just means you’ve come across an old-fashioned variety rather than one of the newer hybrids, where the bumps have been bred out.
Buy a mix for color and flavor variation
Whenever they’re available, be sure to buy several different shapes and colors. They’ll look great in a finished dish, and the subtle variations in flavor and texture make a lovely mix.
Cooking summer squash in a little butter or olive oil with garlic, shallots, or scallions coaxes out its mild, buttery taste. Chopped summer herbs such as basil, dill, lemon thyme, chives, and flat-leaf parsley are good at setting off the delicate flavors of summer squash.
Cook chunks of summer squash with eggplant, tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, and onion; season with a splash of good balsamic vine g a r to make a ratatouilletype dish. For an easy supper, I love to combine a variety of sliced summer squashes in a casserole with chunks of tomatoes and onions. I top the vegetables with sweet Italian sausages sliced down the middle and bake the casserole until the sausage is browned, the vegetables are fork-tender, and the sausage juices have flavored the vegetables.